The fire inside

A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.

“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.

“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.

“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.

I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.

I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.

Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.

You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.

Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.

I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King called The Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.

So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.

Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.

Hold Still

Sunflower – front and back (A5 Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook 2019)

Sally Mann is probably best known – to those without an interest in contemporary photography – as that woman who took pictures of her kids naked or, perhaps, the one who photographed decomposing bodies at a federal forensic anthropology facility.

She is that Sally Mann, as well as the one who documented her husband’s muscular dystrophy in a series of deeply moving images; who published pictures of the Deep South, “haunted landscapes, battlefields, decaying mansions…and the site where Emmett Till was murdered” (according to Newsweek); who wrote a remarkable, award-winning memoir, listed as one of the twenty best in the New York Times, called Hold Still.

It’s worth reading for its beautiful prose and often candid photographs, including ones that Mann thought hadn’t actually worked. One of the book’s many charms is this Gagosian-represented artist’s admission that some of her work, y’know, wasn’t up to scratch. That happens to me. It happens to you as well, I imagine? Well, it also happens to those whose work is on sale in one of the world’s leading galleries.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s unlikely that even the most accomplished photographer will produce spun gold every time she points her camera. Yet how satisfying to read that:

Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it.

Maybe you’ve made something mediocre – there’s plenty of that in any artist’s cabinets – but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.

It’s that passion, those beckoning hands, that keep us moving on. We probably shouldn’t seek perfection as such (and Ms Mann points out elsewhere that this is something with which she struggles on a daily basis) but it’s the moving forward that matters. It’s not just a case of the grass being greener over there, but the passion in creating something is requited more completely when you achieve something like the image – or the piece of writing – you had in your head.

I’m not sure I really needed Sally Mann to tell me that, but I’m somehow pleased that she confirmed it in this very special memoir.

The creative everyperson

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The last rosebuds of autumn (A5 ink and watercolour on Daler Rowney Ivory sketchbook page 2019)

Some years ago I stopped drawing and painting: I wasn’t developing, it took up time I could be spending with my new girlfriend, and it was proving to be more frustrating than rewarding. When I married and had children it was fun to draw with them and make them birthday cards, but it wasn’t until I returned to the UK after nearly 20 years away – my personal life and career in tatters – that I started again, this time seeking out evening courses and workshops to help me progress.

In between I’d tried my hand at photography but the area that best satisfied my need to create was cooking. I’d always cooked – I nearly poisoned myself on instant curries as a student and then I lived alone for some years and, as I enjoyed eating, I thought it would be useful to be able to cook.

It wasn’t until I gave up drawing that I really started to improve. The process of cooking a daube de bouef or a good risotto was not unlike the practice of art: it took time, some knowledge of technique and a certain amount of skill, but in order to cook well one had to develop an instinct for the subtleties of flavour, to know when to stop, to feel a part of the activity itself. In short, I transferred my frustrated creativity from the art of drawing to the art of cooking, with the same intensity.

Recently I came across an article in RA, the magazine of London’s Royal Academy of Art, by Oli Mould, author of a book called Against Creativity, which argued against this concept:

Apparently everyone is creative….No longer is creativity an attribute we associate with skilled artisans and visionaries; every person, every job and every place must be creative to survive…The concept of creativity is now so ubiquitous in modern-day parlance that any semblance of what creativity actually creates has been lost.

Mr Mould gets the bit between his teeth after this, roping in the Uber app, the John Lewis Christmas ad, artisan coffee shops in Shoreditch, and high-rise residential housing for the super-rich to show how ‘creativity’ has been harnessed to profit and destroyed as a meaningful concept.

Personally I see no harm in a wider vision of creativity: isn’t your neighbour’s pleasing arrangement of flowerbeds creative? Isn’t a hairdresser creating a style that pleases her customer creative? I work in the marketing department of a book publishing company and I urge my colleagues to be ‘creative’, to go one step beyond their comfort zone, to think of innovative ways to bring our niche programme of academic monographs to the attention of their potential readership. Are any of those less creative than some of the artists I see on Instagram, churning out variations of their single theme time after time?

Let’s not rebrand creativity as the sole preserve of the professional artist or composer. Not all of us can call ourselves artists but we can all be creative. Frankly, if I had to choose between the perfect risotto and Jeff Koons’ balloon dog I know which I’d choose.

Kick-starting inspiration

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Horse Chestnut (after Robert Dukes) A5 (coloured pencils, ink and collage on Stillmann & Birn gamma paper) 2018

Do you know that feeling when you’re working on something and suddenly you think, this is so dull? Last week it happened as I was working on a drawing in four panels showing how a quince rotted over time, based on a sequence of paintings by Horst Janssen called Tagebuch der Amaryllis (Diary of an amaryllis).

There are various ways to deal with this but my preferred method is to copy something by someone else – not exactly, using it simply as a jumping off point without having to set up a still life or think of a subject. In my reference file I found an oil painting of a conker by Robert Dukes and started to reinterpret it in ink and coloured pencils, the change of medium ensuring a different outcome (not to mention his greater talent!).

Dukes is a London-based painter and teacher who was educated at Grimsby Art College and the Slade under teachers such as Euan Uglow, Lawrence Gowing and Patrick George. Although he also paints landscapes, his expertise in single object still life painting is astonishing. His own problems with inspiration and trying to fit art around the need to make a living will be encouraging for many of us:

I went to the Slade hoping to be inspired and excited but it had the opposite effect. I left in 1988 and did almost no painting for the next ten years or so. I kept drawing the whole time though. Also, I had to earn a living and as a result I had little time to paint. When I did paint I felt that I had no control over the forms I was trying to depict- and that had the effect of making me not want to paint, which of course meant that when I did paint, I was out of practice so it inevitably went badly.

He has also done his share of copying paintings by others (he was fortunate enough to work at the National Gallery in London for many years) so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my borrowing his horse chestnut to work through my own creative block. It’s an effective way of kick-starting creativity, reinterpreting what someone else has done, observing how they’ve used colour, form and composition, feeling your way around another’s work. What’s more, as Dukes has said, “I do think making copies is a good excuse to spend a long time looking at a painting you admire.”

Season of the Quince

Quinces on a Plate (A5 ink and coloured pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma paper sample 2018)

This year I didn’t have to drive around the country lanes of Suffolk looking for unwanted quinces, left at garden gates with a sign saying “Help yourself.” This year my own tree – encouraged by the hot summer – had its own bumper crop.

I’ve no idea what it is about them that I find so alluring. Perhaps it’s their irregular shape: sometimes bulbous and knobbly, sometimes like tight yellow apples, sometimes golden pears. It could be their range of colour, from orangey-gold to clear, bright cadmium yellow through pale greens, their bruises turning from a rich reddish-brown to the darkness of old varnished oak.

There is also a certain mystery about the noble quince. Is it ripe yet? Wait for the distinctive scent and the pure yellow colour, my neighbours said. But they rot from the inside out: cut open a fruit that looks perfect on the outside and the flesh is already turning brown.

And that scent: so long absent, then suddenly there. The downy skin and the gentle perfume, like the touch and scent of a baby’s head. It smells, too, of the sun and the south, of shady gardens in places where you’d like to be – far away from your computer and your workload and your deadlines. The scent, in short, of contentment, of joy, of delight.

This year I decided not to risk making my own jelly or marmalade, which always results in several jars of quince syrup. Instead a much more competent friend agreed to make it on my behalf. The first results of this arrangement have been jars of golden jelly, fragrant as the fruit itself, looking like a fairy tale gift when held up to the light.

Do I exaggerate the wonders of quince? I think not. It’s very possible I was put under some spell that holds me in thrall to their beauty, that I’ll admit. I never tire of drawing and painting them, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I bet that breakfast in Heaven is quince marmalade on Pump Street Bakery sourdough bread, lightly toasted.

Lunch will be Rebecca Charles’ lobster roll.

The Party

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Quinces (21 cms x 29.7 cms acrylic and collage 2018)

“A painter should be able to see space as a flat plane. The viewer should be able to see a flat plane as space.”

The Czech painter Vladimir Kokolia is also a teacher, one who is generous with his ideas about drawing and painting. His own paintings, now on view at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, are beautiful, shimmering evocations of nature. They’re the sort of pictures that critics and art historians struggle to describe, their clumsy words bumping up against his luminous paintings like moths against a light. They exist in that beautiful space between the figurative and the abstract: a place that is difficult and perhaps even dangerous to reach but once you’re there it’s as radiant as a spring morning.

Laura Cumming, who I think is one of the most evocative writers on art, says of his painting, Looking at Ash Tree, that “while the tree may be present, in the tangle of marks, the emphasis is entirely on the sensation of seeing; specifically, the way that leaves percolate sunshine and breezes shift leaves.”

Seeing.

My life drawing teacher, growing impatient with my attempts to draw the woman that was in my head instead of the one sitting in front of me, once said, “I pay for the f***ing model – you might want to look at her now and again!” Why don’t we look? Why can’t we see? Why do we struggle to describe what is actually there given that the language that we use is one we have devised ourselves?

That’s why I love to paint fruit. I strive to describe the ‘quinceness’ of the quince, the ‘pomegranteness’ of the pomegranate, as I see them. Not that my way is any better than yours but it’s surely different, and to me it feels somehow important. Kokolia’s way of looking at the ash tree, all shimmering greens against a grey and white background, is (probably) more interesting than a photograph. He invites us into his world: he has transformed this ash tree in rural Moravia into a flat plane of twisting colour and form; we on our side must interpret this plane as a three-dimensional tree in that world between what we see and what we feel, between the figurative and the abstract.

The quote from Kokolia that opens this post stopped me in my tracks as I leafed through the disappointing, over designed catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (which I haven’t seen, by the way). I love the idea of a bargain between artist and viewer, the artist saying “Trust me, this is what I know” and the viewer responding with “Yes, and this is what I understand.”

Many years ago I went to a party in the house of a famous rock guitarist in London. I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. For a while I wandered around with a glass of wine in my hand and even, for a while, hid in one of the bathrooms wondering how I could make a dignified escape. Then, in a distant room in a dimly-lit corner, I came across my two best friends (who had invited me). “Where have you been?” they asked, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Sometimes creativity feels like a you’re a guest at a party where everyone knows each other and you know no-one, then you turn a corner and find that, yes, you do belong here after all.

Precious

Mystery object – see below (pastel and collage 60 cms x 42 cms) 2018

Recently the New York Times printed a photograph (by Nat Farbman) of the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti – one of the leading lights of the Beats – reading his work to a group of onlookers. There he stood, dark and dashing in a tweed jacket and cord trousers, looking every inch the charismatic 1960s poet. At his feet lounged a young man in a similar outfit and a woman in a black sweater and tight skirt. People are drinking wine from tumblers.

As well as being an admired poet, Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders of the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. He was the first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, which – whatever you think of it now – was a tornado blasting its way through the poetry landscape of the time.

San Francisco is a different place than it was when Ferlinghetti first opened the doors of City Lights in 1953. It was never a city associated with business, but with alternative lifestyles, freedom and revolution. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Now, with the arrival of Google, Apple, Twitter and the – seriously – 5,249 tech start-ups in the city, there’s no place for California Dreaming.

City Lights is not just a bookstore but a vital landmark on the map of modern culture. Ferlinghetti is 99 this year – what’ll happen when the inevitable occurs? I fear poetry isn’t that high on the list of requirements of the twentysomething techies waiting for the WiFi enabled buses to whisk them off to Silicon Valley, so will it just become another artisan coffee shop?

I thought of this recently when I was having dinner with a close friend in Greenwich Village. We’d booked a table at the magnificent Pearl and were enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The Village is another place where cultural history swirls around you like ghosts in a cartoon film. Think of those writers, artists and jazz musicians who lived, worked and played here. The Bottom Line and the Village Gate –  names familiar from the sleeves of jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, are gone – replaced by a pharmacy and university departments.

Shouldn’t places like City Lights be preserved, immune from rent rises and speculation? These are the names that pepper the cultural histories of the 20th century and should be as precious to us as medieval castles or Tudor chimneys. It’s not just architectural excellence that should be preserved but those places that contributed to the spirit of the times, and preferably not turned into tacky museums. Slap them all on the National Register of Historic Places before it’s too late!

So what is that thing that heads this post? Is it Ferlinghetti’s appendix, perhaps? Far from it: it’s a steamed clam, drawn from a photograph of one taken from my dinner companion’s plate. Or should I say it started off as a drawing of a clam, but then I added more and more colour and texture to it and made it into something that is now just an abstract idea of a steamed clam, a variation on a theme of a steamed clam. Don’t worry, chef Rebecca Charles would never serve this to you in Pearl.